The Benedictine Arrangement

Recently we spoke of the very excellent restoration work that took place at the Pontifical College Josephinum. In the course of that piece LAJ made one proposal to the good folks at the PCJ for their consideration: institute the Benedictine arrangement on the altar. In the course of some conversation about this point, the question arose as to whether this would work here? A picture is always worth a thousand words so to further the conversation and address some of the points of conversation I made some mock-ups for us to look at.

That conversation made me realize that it is probably a worthwhile endeavour to re-approach this matter of the Benedictine arrangement so that we do not lose sight of its importance and to put forward some practical considerations about how to best effect it.

(Hopefully the folks at the PCJ will forgive me for using their chapel as the photographic template for this discussion; it is not meant as a criticism of their incredible work of restoration for which they should be commended. It is purely expedient since the mock-ups are already at hand and the recent focus here on the chapel certainly helps to inform broader considerations.)

The Liturgical and Theological Reasons Behind the Benedictine Arrangement

It is first of all important to remind ourselves of the 'why.' Why is this arrangement so important today and in general? It's importance didn't disappear with the pontificate of Benedict XVI after all -- even if its prominence might have (which was only to be expected).

One of the issues that has been a source of sincere struggle since the liturgical reforms -- which saw versus populum widen in usage -- is the challenge for clergy and faithful alike to not reduce the Mass to a substantially horizontal dialogue between themselves.  Pope Benedict XVI, as a cardinal, called this the problem of the self-enclosed circle in his book, The Spirit of the Liturgy.  Now there are times when the gathered faithful and the priest are indeed in dialogue with each other, but there are many more times within the sacred liturgy where the dialogue is between us (priest and faithful alike) and God.

Many clergy have discussed how much of a challenge it is to offer Mass versus populum and not turn it into that self-enclosed circle. After all, our natural tendency if we are put up at the front of a room facing a group of people is to focus in on those people and try to be engaging, even entertaining. That's perfectly fine for a workshop of course but its problematic for worship.

Now if this is a problem even for those who are making a conscious effort to not approach the liturgy in this way, imagine the issues when there is no such conscious effort or formation -- and that includes the faithful. This latter point is perhaps an all too forgotten aspect in this conversation. The emphasis naturally tends to focus on the struggles and benefits for the priest but the faithful can struggle with this as well let it be remembered. Without the soft barrier (sic) of ad orientem liturgicum or the Benedictine arrangement, the naked exposure of the priest and faithful to one another itself becomes a barrier to properly oriented liturgical worship -- and where it is not considered such it is usually because of this misdirected liturgical emphasis without any corrective measure being put in place to mitigate that.

Now you will note that I use the phrase, 'soft barrier;' this is because it is not an absolute barrier that does not permit engagement, participation or (where and when appropriate) dialogue. It is comparable to a filter that lets through the substance that we want, while filtering out that which we don't. In this instance, it filters out the problem of the self-enclosed circle, of horizontalized liturgy, and re-orients us properly as a worshipping community.

In addition to these benefits, there are others and I would like to identify three in particular. Let's treat them each separately.

Symbolic Benefits: Emphasizing the Centrality of the Altar

The use of the six candlesticks and cross upon the altar, when done in proper proportions, helps to draw attention to the altar very much in the way that the ciborium magnum or baldachin does.  This is because this addition gives greater visual weight and vertical thrust to the altar and that naturally has an effect of emphasizing it; it draws us to it.  This is symbolically appropriate (and important) because the altar is, after all, the central focal point of a church. That is precisely where our attention should be drawn.

Let's give an example. Here are two views of the wonderfully restored PCJ chapel, one without this arrangement and one with (sans the cross, but only because I didn't have an image to work with at the time; it is not needed for this present point however):

Left: Current Arrangement  Right: Proposed Arrangement
(Click to enlarge)

When comparing the two (and I would advise enlarging the image) I think you will see a few things.

In the arrangement without the Benedictine arrangement, one's attention is mainly drawn to the dossal curtain behind. This is because there is greater vertical thrust to it than the altar, which is much more horizontal and as such it doesn't particularly stand out or draw attention to itself. This is emphasized all the more when one takes a view to the whole chapel. Everything has an upward thrust -- everything except the altar that is. This is a common problem for altars without this sort of arrangement. The altar becomes underemphasized and that is not an optimal situation for that which is supposed to be most central. (Which is one of the reasons the ciborium developed in the first place.)

By contrast, in the proposed version with the Benedictine arrangement, the altar now is included in this vertical thrust and the dossal curtain, tabernacle and cross form a backdrop for this but they are not the primary focus; they augment the altar rather than working in competition with it, creating a visual unity and harmony between them. They are a seamless whole so to speak. In the arrangement without the Benedictine arrangement, they are visually disparate and one tends to see them as separate and competing component parts.

Noble Beauty and Simplicity

The harmony and visual unity that is created by the Benedictine arrangement results in something which is cleaner, more focused and, arguably, a clearer example of noble simplicity. While the other arrangement does have symmetry, as noted it creates a more visually disparate result that emphasizes the candlesticks as candlesticks; the tabernacle as a tabernacle; the altar as an altar; the cross as a cross; the dossal curtain as a dossal curtain. One tends to see it as five things rather than one or two. As a result, it is visually less clean and less simple.

Here is a closer view of the altar specifically to help visualize this.

The top arrangement creates a unified whole that, aside from the aspect of verticality noted earlier, also integrates the different component parts and creates a cleaner, simpler, more unified whole.  The second arrangement with the candlesticks on the floor visually results in the different parts being broken up visually. 

Continuity and Unity Between Liturgical Forms

The final benefit I would speak of today is that the use of the Benedictine arrangement has the effect of emphasizing continuity. This arrangement is iconic. It is Roman. So utilizing it is a means of visually adopting a hermeneutic of continuity or reform in continuity.

Beyond that it is also unitive. What do I mean by that? We live in an age where the use of the two forms of the Roman liturgy is seeing an increasing use within seminaries, parishes, etc.  By adopting the Benedictine arrangement, a visual unity is also created between the two liturgical forms, rather than the altar appearing one way for the one set of liturgical books and another way entirely for the other -- which emphasizes difference. Even when the candlesticks are shifted to the other side of the altar for celebration ad orientem liturgicum in the usus antiquior,  the altar will still look substantially and iconically the same.  Whatever our own particular thoughts or preferences around the liturgical question, it is surely a good thing to encourage unity whenever possible. This is one means of doing that.

Practical Thoughts Around Implementation

For those who determine to adopt this arrrangement it seems useful to offer some practical advice.

At times some have implemented the Benedictine arrangement in a 'shyer' way by utilizing fairly short candlesticks and altar cross that do not even come up to the eye level of the celebrant. While it is good that there is at least an attempt being made, it must be commented that this tends to mitigate or even negate the positive benefits that have been mentioned here.

In considering the cross and candles that are to be used on an altar a few things must be factored in: 1. The size and design of the altar. 2. The size of the space where the particular altar is found (e.g. a large vacuous church versus a very small and intimate chapel setting). From there other factors should enter into your considerations in relationship to those: 3. The height of the candlesticks and cross. 4. The combined height of the candlesticks and candles. 5. Their visual weight  (ie. how "bulky' they are or aren't).

In the first instance, start off by considering how you would approach this design if you were setting up an altar in the traditional ad orientem liturgicum fashion. What would look best and most proprortionate in that instance? This is a good way to approach the question simply at first, without complicating it with other considerations.

Second, consider certain design principles or applications; look at examples. What works and what doesn't? Why? An example of one such principle is that it tends to not be very pleasing when the candles are significantly shorter or less weighty than the candlesticks themselves.  If you want an example of what I mean by this, one has to look no further than the Pantheon (S. Maria ad Martyres) in Rome as it stands today (though it was not always so):

An example of candles that are proportionally too short for their candlesticks.
This is a good example of how relational proportions matter, not just between the candlesticks and candles, but also the altar and overall space itself. The candles in this case are far too short for those candlesticks, never mind the space of the basilica itself. The end result is not pleasing in the slightest. It simply looks wrong.  Compare that to this mock-up that would see taller, more traditional candles used:

(Click to enlarge)
Once you have ascertained what proportions would seem to work best if that particular altar were set up for ad orientem liturgicum (and the best way to do it is by actually trying things out, whether by mocking it up digitally or trying things out on physically on the altar itself) you can then approach the question of the Benedictine arrangement. The very first question should be whether there is any reason why that very same arrangement could not work? In most instances it probably will work.  Usually the only thing that could prevent it is when the candlesticks are very bulky in their design and permit little space between them given the particular size of the altar (like in our Pantheon example above). That arrangement is fine for altars setup ad orientem liturgicum but not so good in the case of the Benedictine arrangement. This, however, is a rare circumstance and the exception rather than the rule.

In terms of the combined height of the candlesticks and candles, a good rule of thumb is that they usually look best when their combined height is higher than the height of the altar itself at a minimum -- and the bigger the space, the higher they should be typically. (The Pantheon example above is, once again, instructive in this regard.)

In terms of the visual weight of the candlesticks, similar factors enter in. The width of the altar for one, but also the design. Some altars look 'heftier' than others. The more substantial the feel of altar in its materials and design, the more substantial should the candlesticks also feel to create a balance and harmony between them.  The opposite is also true.  What doesn't look correct, however, is when a very weighty, substantial altar has very tiny candlesticks and candles, or vice versa.

Finally, a word about placement. Very often I have seen parishes cluster three of the candlesticks toward the one edge of the altar and the other three toward the other edge. Here is an example of this approach:

This 'clustering' of the three candles on either side loses visual harmony as well as some of the other benefits of the Benedictine arrangement
Now in the case of the papal liturgy as above, it is noteworthy that it didn't start out this way. My own sense is that this was done as a compromise in papal liturgies due to the requirements of photographers and television broadcasting for the Pope's Masses -- namely, clearer camera angles. Unfortunately many others followed suit as though this were the norm or ideal.

The issue with this is that it doesn't look properly balanced and it further mitigates some of the other visual benefits we've discussed, including the orienting effect. The best form of this arrangement has already been defined for us by the Roman tradition, which sees the candles and cross spaced equally across the whole altar -- or occasionally with only the slightest increase of distance between the cross and the candles. Here are two examples:

Finally a word about the cross. In some instances there is hesitation to put an altar cross on the altar where there is a mounted crucifix on the wall behind. Usually this is rooted in the idea of avoiding duplications, but it should be recalled here that this wouldn't be a needless duplication. Far from it.  It is important that the priest have benefit of that cross before his eyes and it is a key, central aspect of the Benedictine arrangement. Where the situation described exists, it merely takes some design consideration to think about how to best approach it.

To return back to the mock-ups done utilizing the chapel at the PCJ for example, let's look at it with and without the altar cross. We shall begin without:

Visually speaking, it looks perfectly fine from this point of view, but we have reduced that orienting effect for the priest and faithful. Let's look at the same view with the altar cross.

This too looks very pleasing, but it also gains the benefits mentioned above.  However there's another important point here. For those who are still worried about seeing two crosses one above the other, it also must be remembered that no one, liturgically, has these particular sight lines -- which are taken from the centre of the central aisle.  Rather, people would be seeing this arrangement from more or less extreme angles, and also with greater depth of field than we have in a photograph. In that regard, any concern for having an altar cross visually right beneath a mounted wall cross like this is really rather unfounded and based upon an abstraction that really doesn't translate into reality.


It is my hope that some of these considerations might prove of use. While they are primarily oriented toward the Benedictine arrangement, some of them may also be of use for traditional altar arrangements as well.

As always, we're interested to see and hear what you are doing at your parishes. What's more, if pastors and the like are considering what you might do at your parish in this or other regards and would like some thoughts, you are always more than welcome to send them on in to LAJ for thoughts and suggestions.

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